Save Money, Cut Greenhouse Gases: It's Easier than You Think

New report says simple actions done at home really can have a big impact on the environment, and your budget.

November 10, 2009

The clothesline in your yard could be an important tool for stopping global warming.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When your day is so busy that it's a major victory just to sit down for dinner by 6 o'clock, it's often hard to wrap your head around such far-reaching issues as global warming and proposed cap-and-trade or carbon tax policies aimed at tackling the monumental problem. But making a huge difference to help the environment and human health, without putting forth a lot of effort or money, is in your reach. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that basic actions taken by everyday people at home can indeed make a difference.


THE DETAILS: In the study, researchers used a behavioral approach to look at household carbon-cutting measures involving existing technology. They found that strategies like home weatherization, routine vehicle maintenance, and using a clothesline instead of a dryer could cut U.S. carbon emissions by 5 percent over five years, and 7.4 percent in 10 years. That’s the equivalent of France’s total carbon output, or of total emissions from the U.S.’s petroleum refining, steel, and aluminum industries, says study author Thomas Dietz, PhD, professor of sociology and environmental science and policy at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

He says within 10 years, national implementation of these relatively simple measures could save an estimated 123 million metric tons of carbon per year in year 10, which is 20 percent of household direct emissions or 7.4 percent of U.S. national emissions. "I've seen many analyses that make wild assumptions about how hard or how easy it is to get people to change their behavior, without any basis in science," he said. "Our analysis is based on science. We look at what has been feasible in bringing about changes in energy-consumption behavior."

WHAT IT MEANS: According to Dietz, household energy consumption accounts for 38 percent of carbon emissions in the United States and 8 percent of world emissions. So cutting back in that department will not only save money on your bills, but also help tackle a global problem at the same time.

We don't have to sit back and wait for politicians to agree on global policy to drastically cut carbon emissions. While that certainly is an important piece of the puzzle, it also will take time.

Want a big bang for your buck? Here are relatively simple steps to save energy at home and cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions, too.

Rethink your fridge. To make the most of energy savings with the refrigerator you've already got, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy suggests the following:

• Check the seals. Test the seals of your fridge and freezer doors by putting a dollar bill in the door as you close it. If it falls out, call the manufacturer and order new door seals.

• Check the temp. Keep the refrigerator between 36 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and the freezer between 0 and 5 degrees.

• Keep her cool. Consider moving your refrigerator to a cooler spot if sunlight hits it, or if it's near the stove or dishwasher.

• Toss frost. Manual defrost and partial-automatic-defrost refrigerators and freezers should be defrosted on a regular basis. That's to eradicate the buildup of ice on the coils inside the unit, which makes the compressor run overtime to keep things cool. After defrosting, see if you're able to adjust the thermostat to a warmer setting, saving further energy.

• Cool before loading. Piping-hot leftovers should cool on the counter before you put them in the fridge. Otherwise, your appliance will have to work a lot harder to cope with the added heat.

• Tuck in your water heater. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit organization focusing on energy-efficient design, water-heating accounts for nearly 20 percent of total home-energy use, costing the average family $300 a year. It's the leading use of home energy behind space heating and cooling.

ACEEE, cocreator of the user-friendly Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, 9th Edition: Save Money, Save the Earth (New Society Publishers, 2007), suggests some pretty easy water-heater tips that can drastically lower your energy use (and thus, save you money!)

• Conserve water. Since a family of four each showering five minutes a day can use 700 gallons of hot water a week, installing water-conserving showerheads can cut your use in half, saving energy and as much as 14,000 gallons of water annually.

• Blanket your heater. If you have an electric water heater and it was installed before 2004, ACEEE says insulating your current water heater is one of the most effective do-it-yourself energy-saving projects. Insulating jackets are usually available at your local hardware store and run about $10. Properly installed, the jacket will prevent heat loss by 25 to 40 percent. You'll quickly earn back the money spent, with an estimated 4 to 9 percent savings on your monthly water bills.

• Wrap your pipes. Insulating your hot-water pipes where they run through unheated areas will help keep the heat where it belongs—in the water flowing through the pipes. The better insulated they are, the longer it will take for water sitting in the pipes to cool down, thus reducing the amount of work your hot-water heater needs to do.

• Turn it down. If you scald your hands when you turn on your hot water, you're throwing away money and wasting energy. Lower your water heater temperature to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. When you go on vacation, turn it down to the lowest setting or turn it off altogether. ACEE found that for each 10-degree reduction in water temperature, you'll generally save 3 to 5 percent of your water-heating costs.

• Hang out your wet clothes. Dryers are convenient, but they gulp a lot of energy, too. Using a clothesline at least some of the time saves energy, money, and greenhouse-gas emissions. Study up on clothesline 101, and learn how to humidify your house while drying clothes indoors.